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Real Madrid 1-1 Chelsea, Champions League: Tactical Analysis

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Breaking down Chelsea’s midweek draw against the European powerhouse

First half

Chelsea were dominant in the first half, over-running Madrid in midfield, recovering loose balls and breaking through pressure to create a number of opportunities in the final third.

Chelsea were very aggressive to break through Madrid’s pressure quickly in midfield. The spaces for Chelsea to exploit were found ahead of Madrid’s backline, as their midfield pushed up to try to press Chelsea’s buildup, which would allow for Chelsea to combine, dribble or quickly recover loose balls to break forward.

Madrid were left vulnerable with Benzema playing between Jorginho and Silva, Casemiro pushing up high to close down Jorginho, the wing-backs up to close Chelsea’s wing-backs, Kroos isolated against Kanteé (a complete mismatch for Kroos) and Modrić getting caught between Mount and Rüdiger. Any combination with Kanté involved on the right would see him easily carry the ball past Kroos and into all the space left behind to set up dangerous opportunities inside the box. It would be the same outcome upon any broken play where Kanté was around to recover the ball, so essentially whenever he could carry the ball Chelsea would have an attack in the final third easily.

Real Madrid v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

From the left Mount could play quick passes, find the spaces behind Modrić to receive the ball and dribble past opponents (turns when receiving) to also setup opportunities to attack Madrid’s box. In addition to these two attacks, Pulisic was also involved in finding the spaces behind Madrid’s midfield line, where he could turn and combine to set up attacks.

In midfield Madrid had a similar setup with less intensity on the ball, and this would give them a couple problems as the midfielders were caught between:

  1. leaving space and time on the ball for Chelsea to play passes behind their backline (the backline remaining high up)
  2. pressing more aggressively, but which would open up the spaces ahead of their backline again.

Chelsea took the lead from one of these long pass opportunities from midfield, but the amount of chances and opportunities to create chances missed could be decisive come the second leg. Although Madrid’s backline did an excellent job not committing themselves when open at the back to Chelsea’s fast attacks (dropping back but maintaining right distance and showing outside), Chelsea really should have taken advantage of these moments.

Even in bad moments with momentum against them, Madrid are experienced and calm enough to react well. They won a couple of balls high up, and Benzema hit the bar with a long shot, before they got themselves back level terms with a goal from a short set piece.

Madrid would find the man beyond the far post on multiple occasions during the match (to knock the ball back across goal for the second ball) and this really caused Chelsea problems. This could be where Real have success in the second leg — especially given the potential returning players to attack the ball in the air.

Other situations where Madrid caused Chelsea problems were counters, where they attacked with width and switches by Kroos (as well as arriving for long shots), and they could use the dribbling and speed of Vinicius as an outlet to go down the wing — very much out of the game defensively; waiting around Christensen.

Real Madrid v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League - Semi Final - First Leg - Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano Photo by Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images

Second half

Madrid made some changes for the second half which helped solve a few problems. Instead of Casemiro moving up to press Jorginho, Kroos would instead press Jorginho from the left. This helped them control the problem of Kanté always having spaces or leaving Kroos exposed on that side, with Kroos pressing from the left making it more difficult to pass the ball out to the right as well as keeping Casemiro deep to cover the space. From this Madrid could control the game much more defensively with a compact block and not constantly being opened up by Chelsea breaking through their pressure.

Madrid were also a bit more direct with their possession to make Chelsea’s backline run back and drop off rather than being able to constantly push up — preventing Chelsea from pushing up high as a team to sustain pressure. Madrid could play off the second ball when playing more direct, but the consequences of it as the half went on would see Chelsea dropping off (perhaps getting tired, but not able to close the distances as a team in any case) where Madrid could then look to move forward with the ball as a team and bring Kroos and Modrić into the game.

Real Madrid v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Leg One

The initial substitutes were good and in good timing for both teams. Hazard arrived at a time where Madrid were taking the ball forward as a team and having to break down a deep Chelsea block, which Chelsea will know well enough that he is an expert at, while Chelsea’s triple change brought energy on for the frontline with and without the ball, as well as having James to add his physical qualities and freshness to assist with attacks and defending of Hazard. Chelsea would gain the most from this change where they would go on to have ball possession again and have their best period of the second half, taking attacks up to Madrid’s box to create.

Madrid’s final changes made them weaker. Although Asensio on at wing-back can offer some quality in the final third, Madrid were again very exposed on that side (Marcelo going off already on a yellow) and Chelsea began to find their way through the pressure on that side as they had in the first half. Although both sides would have moments around the opposition's goal during the final stages, neither were able to find another goal.

Conclusion

Chelsea dominated in midfield during the first half, where they broke through Madrid’s pressure, took the lead and created a number of chances which they were unable to take. Madrid remained calm and would cause problems throughout the game with their offensive set pieces to the man beyond the far post, and found their equaliser this way. Madrid’s adjustments at halftime would see them take control of the game with the ball and not be left exposed in midfield as they had been in the first half, before Chelsea’s triple change brought the life back into their game with and without the ball. With neither side being able to go on and find a second goal, Chelsea head into the second leg with the away goal advantage.